High Everything

Our son was born June 2020 at 32 weeks gestation. Coming out into the world is tricky for any baby, but for preemies, it’s especially intense. Lights, sounds, textures, fabrics…everything feels more intense because your senses are “turned on” before they are ready. From his perspective, he was evicted from a warm, dark, cozy, safe, contained space, taken from his mother (due to a severe hemorrhage), and poked and prodded and tubed by all these strangers. This first imprint on his nervous system was not one that tells him the world is safe but, rather, one that tells him “the world is not safe and I am not safe in it”…which is, essentially, pre-verbal pediatric medical trauma. Compound this with being born during pre-vaccination pandemic times.  As first-time parents with a baby in the NICU for a month, who then weren’t able to have any visitors at home, it was a lot. 

As we know, anxiety is contagious. Our nervous systems give off a felt sense of fear and uncertainty and our connected others pick up that state via limbic resonance (yes, this is a real thing). As a parent, my mind was continually racing with fear-based questions- Was he breathing? Was he gaining enough weight? Why wasn’t he sleeping? Everything felt like a crisis and, like many sleep-deprived parents, I was in a constant cycle of buying things that I thought might solve the problem. Sadly, this was just taking me further away from being present and calm and deeper into a rotating pattern of identify problem-attempt solution-evaluate impact- try again. My anxiety and dis-embodiment (being very removed from my body) was something he could pick up on, and this only increased his feeling of being unsafe. In my quest to make it better, I was making it worse.

Respectful Parenting For The Win

In the midst of this experience of parenting feeling very much the opposite of how I wanted it to feel, I was introduced to “slow parenting” via a philosophy called RIE- Respecting Infant Educarers- which was created by Magda Gerber. My current favorite parenting educator, Janet Lansbury, has a fantastic Instagram feed (@janetlansbury), podcast (Unruffled) and is the author of the most-frequently-borrowed book from my lending library, No Bad Kids- Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

The fundamental belief of RIE is that every child is a whole and complete person worthy of respect from the time they are born. That sounds self-evident but, if you look at how you parent, do you ever take time to think about what your child is experiencing when you are caring for them? Respecting them as a whole person means treating them how you would like to be treated. This means making eye contact, talking to them, and waiting for a reply, asking for permission to do things like diaper and or remove them from situations. It makes a ton of sense for general parenting, but it was absolutely essential for parenting a highly-sensitive kiddo.

Respectful parenting is slow, deliberate, embodied parenting. You don’t rush your child through activities. You don’t plug them into television or tablets. You speak to them in a calm neutral voice when things go wrong; you do a lot of “sportscasting”- narrating what’s happening but not assigning praise for successful outcomes or blame for mistakes. You connect first, then you explain/adjust/redirect. You help them understand feelings instead of distracting them from negative emotions. You are a warm, safe base for sadness, frustration, hurt, anger. You don’t soothe or try to make the pain go away- you sit with them and hold them and acknowledge their feelings while they work through them.

Emotion Puppets

We recently got our son a set of emotions puppets. Partly, this is because I love Internal Family Systems and wanted to get him introduced to the concepts of Self and parts, but it was primarily driven by the fact that he is highly reactive to negative emotions in books or in the few movies he can tolerate watching. For example, if he knows something sad is coming up in a book in a page or two, he starts yelling. In the movie Moana, he loves watching baby Moana play in the surf but we have to fast-forward the scene where Grammy Moana says “bloodthirsty jaws of inescapable death.”

Much like the Disney movie Inside Out, our five puppets are Happy, Sad, Angry, Afraid and Surprised. When I observe him having an intense feeling, I offer names for his experience, such as  “Gosh, it sounds like you’re frustrated- maybe a little angry and a little sad?”. I show him that right now those feelings are really big but over time they will get smaller and he will have more space for other parts and feelings, like Happy. We also practice “welcoming” all our feelings by singing the song that his preschool uses during circle time to welcome the kids to school. He picks up each puppet and then I sing its name until they are all welcomed into our day. We also use them to talk about the good things even the tough emotions bring to us. For example, being afraid keeps us safe and it also allows us to be brave…you can’t be brave if you feel no fear.

Learning to identify feelings as something that we can move away from our bodies and relate to from a bit of distance without being taken over by them makes them more manageable. Instead of the feelings being “all of us”…they are just a part of us. For someone who feels the world so intensely, this ability to distance, contain, and manage is incredibly soothing.

The Gift of The Highly-Sensitive

Parenting a highly-sensitive child has forced me to be a more respectful, mindful parent. My son has given me the gift of slowing down…regulating myself first so I can help him regulate, speaking with intention, transitioning more slowly, listening with my whole being instead of just my ears. He has deep feelings, incredible creativity and curiosity and a desire to understand how everything works. Highly-sensitive is tough in a world that is always telling you “more, bigger, faster, brighter, now.” His preference for slow, soft, sensitive, quiet and patient are ones I think we can all learn from.

Be well,

Mariah

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